Wouldn’t it be deliciously insubordinate to read side by side two writers who have nothing in common and plumb the depths of the gulf between them? That was my plan in pairing Jean Genet’s The Criminal Child: Selected Essays with Jenny Erpenbeck’s Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces, two texts whose only commonality is that they are both newly translated prose collections, the first from French by Charlotte Mandell and Jeffrey Zuckerman, the second from German by Kurt Beals. Indeed, when read in parallel, the two collections not only stand out for their difference in style and subject matter but also underscore how sanitized ethical language has become in the 60 to 70 years that separate them. Though both writers confront some of the most unsavory and unjust dimensions of human life, Genet revels in moral ambiguity and coarse language, while Erpenbeck satisfies her audience’s desire for tidy ethical responses by using careful, equally tidy sentences. Genet’s world is dirty; Erpenbeck’s is clean.
Jean Genet (1910–1986), the vagrant provocateur whose most committed fans have included Jean-Paul Sartre and Patti Smith, spent his early years in and out of penal institutions for a variety of crimes: theft, forgery, lewdness, and other misdemeanors. Once he took up the pen, it was clear that writing was his vocation. Across genres—from poetry to theater, from fiction to autobiography—Genet granted humanity to those who’d been denied it: juvenile delinquents, immigrants, homosexuals, those living on the fringes. His blunt and thrilling efforts to write his homosexuality, to make it quiver on each page, shocked readers of his time, but his reputation as a writer of richly textured sin and proud deviance has only grown in the decades since his death.
Jenny Erpenbeck (1967–), born into a family of logophiles in East Berlin six years after the wall was built, developed an early interest in theater and began publishing plays, stories, novels, and novellas in the first years of the new millennium. She gained international recognition upon the publication of Gehen, ging, gegangen (2015), translated into English as Go, Went, Gone, a novel that recounts in granular detail the lives of refugees in Germany and their Sisyphean task of gaining acceptance, culturally and juridically, in a polity that doesn’t want them. This was one of the first novels I ever read in the original German, and even though my skills in the language are mediocre, Erpenbeck’s simple sentences and compelling narrative left me hungry for more of her work.
Lately I’ve returned to the essay and other kinds of essayistic prose, which had first interested me as a scholar and writer of essays when I began my academic career. In my view, the essay is the most necessary form of expression in our politically rigid moment. The undogmatic nature of this tentative genre gives space for us to think and write our way out of the seemingly intractable problems we face. It was for this reason that the recent translations of Genet’s essays and Erpenbeck’s fragmented essay-memoir caught my attention. Although the subtitle of Genet’s collection is Selected Essays, a better subtitle might have been Selected Prose, since the book spans many genres: a radio address, letters, descriptions of a ballet and of Alberto Giacometti’s studio, portraits, fragments. Genet flits from theme to theme with the lightness of a bat. He sings the praises of evil and delinquency in one text, articulates his aesthetic principles in another, and in a third describes with lust and fervency the glinting sequins that adorn the body of his lover Abdallah Bentaga, a tightrope walker who committed suicide in 1964.
In her collection, Erpenbeck also shows a broad thematic range: from human rights to the minutiae of everyday life, from a personal ethnography of life in the GDR to an account of how a writerly life coalesces, propelled by a great variety of influences. Many of the subjects Erpenbeck writes about were suggested to her by others: “Now people were asking me if I’d like to write about an East German word that had been forgotten, if perhaps I’d like to write a travelogue, if I’d like to write about what literary associations I had with the word ‘suction.’ Yes, I would.” The assignment-like nature of many of the pieces in Not a Novel gives them a detached quality, as though they reside solely on the author’s hard drive, not in her heart.
In terms of subject matter and style, Genet and Erpenbeck might as well be from different galaxies, even though they inhabit the same universe of literary nonfiction. Genet’s galaxy is dirty, excessive, abject, restless, hot. Erpenbeck’s is minimalist, aseptic, sober, cool.
For example, here is Genet in the opening passage of a letter to the Argentine surrealist Leonor Fini: “A ‘pestilential’ smell: this can be recognized, by a wide-open nostril, as being composed of a thousand scents, interwoven, yet distinct according to each level and layer, in which you might find ferns, mud, the corpses of pink flamingos, salamanders, marsh reeds, a population of heavy scents, at once salubrious and harmful.”
The undogmatic nature of this essayistic prose gives space for us to think and write our way out of the seemingly intractable problems we face.
And here is Erpenbeck in the opening paragraph of a short essay titled “Suction and Suggestion”: “When I open the door to my room, the air flows in from both sides, from the window and from the door, it seems as if the air from outside is just as eager to get in as the air from inside is to get out. Then one of the two—the window or the door—blows shut, the room is filled with fresher air, and everything is calm again.”
While Genet’s passage is moist with rot and perhaps a hint of danger, Erpenbeck’s is crisp and, one could say, emptied of affect. Even when Genet writes about something other than himself, his style looms so assertively that the text might as well be an autobiography. Erpenbeck, on the other hand, is so self-effacing, with a style so sterile and devoid of any organic mark of personhood, that one might sometimes forget the text was written by a human.
Here is another excerpt from Genet’s collection, simply titled “Fragments …,” a series of sexual reminiscences that conjugate desire, tenderness, tuberculosis, and death:
On your knees on the unmade bed, you offer your behind to the executioner, but the image that sums up this instant, the point of the body where your being precipitates, is your childlike neck bent on the pillow. Is it its already withered fall or an invisible hand that pulls your hair in front and mixes it with your drool, your tears, and your mucous? On your knees—but facing what god or what monumental absence?—you are executed. Become: a whore, then the sublime slut, the queen—you, faggot of the bloody spittle, the goddess, a constellation, then the name alone of that constellation, and that name a used-up sign that a poet can use. But a whore first and dying every time. Croak, or, for you alone, use your wretchedness. But facing this mysterious nothingness, you kneel down: he slices your neck when a prick sodomizes you. Mocking, your awakening is simple. Intact, smiling—and free—you walk down the platform on the executioner’s arm.
In Genet’s day, when homosexuality was more taboo than it is now, dirtiness could be attached to certain sexual acts, certain behaviors, and even certain human beings, with great rhetorical effect. Genet was more than happy to roll in the mud and dig his way toward perdition, cursing God along the way, like Capaneus from the depths of Dante’s hell.
This defiance comes through particularly well in the collection’s titular essay, which is also its best. “The Criminal Child” is a vindication of juvenile delinquents and their “restless hunger for heroism.” With its focus on correctional facilities and on the symbolic order of violence, the essay would pair beautifully with Foucault’s Discipline and Punish or any number of Lacan’s writings on children, castration, and the phallus. A modern-day reader might be shocked at Genet’s suggestion that the French penal reforms he witnessed—such as the reduction of corporal punishment and verbal abuse, the “genteel” and “hygienic” renaming of facilities, and a loosening of restrictions on movement and interaction among the children who lived there—prevented lawless youths from fully inhabiting the beauty of their crimes. According to him, only a harsh punishment could exalt their delinquency; anything else served only to “diminish or abolish rebellion.” When a warden confiscates the frail tin knives the children have hidden on their bodies or in their mattresses, he doesn’t realize the symbolic potency these harmless objects have for the young criminals: “They represent the murder the child will never actually carry out.”
Genet, a former juvenile delinquent himself, acts as a translator for the children but also addresses them directly, celebrating the bruises, the vermin, the filth, the profanities, and the brutality of the correctional institutions that offend a public ignorant of its own crimes. In a particularly prescient passage, he writes of the bourgeoisie: “These nice, good people—whose names are now gilded in marble—applauded when they saw us handcuffed and shoved in the ribs by the cops.” Genet sees only poetic justice in the fact that the Nazis later subjected some of these same dignified souls to the kind of brutality experienced on a daily basis by the downtrodden.
Erpenbeck also writes about the downtrodden, specifically refugees, but in a cleaner register that is far more likely than Genet’s crude one to receive the seal of approval from a well-meaning readership of concerned and charitable global citizens. Her writing manifests a particular kind of white guilt, a specifically German one, which I find more serious and historically informed—and less performative—than the American counterpart can sometimes be. This guilt is palpable in her moving elegy to Bashir Zakaryau, a Nigerian refugee who died in Berlin after suffering not only the physical and psychological hell of his odyssey to Europe but also the administrative purgatory that prevented him from legally belonging anywhere before his death. She knew him intimately and witnessed his tribulations without being able to protect him from the ruthless indifference of that abstraction called the Bureaucratic State. Her keynote address “Blind Spots,” delivered in 2018 at the Puterbaugh Festival of International Literature and Culture at the University of Oklahoma, begins with a reflection on borders, and questions why some populations’ suffering is visible and others’ invisible. She asks:
Why do we still hear laments for the Germans who died attempting to flee over the wall but almost none for the countless refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean in recent years, turning the sea into a giant grave? Why is it that the opening of the border in 1989 was something wonderful, but today voices cry out for new and stronger borders? What is the difference between these two groups of people who aspire to a new life, to this thing we call “freedom”? The answer is: nothing.
For the kind of person likely to be reading a Public Books review of newly translated works by Genet and Erpenbeck, the self-evidence of Erpenbeck’s claims is indisputable. Yes, privilege often makes suffering and tyranny invisible. Yes, this privilege triages the world into those who matter and those who don’t. Yes, this is wrong. Whether the reader will act on this knowledge is another matter, but the point is that Erpenbeck’s clean and healthy messaging—no germs, no sharp edges—is perfectly assimilable into a larger public discourse of safety, goodness, fairness, decency. She is on the right side of history—the side of history with clean hands.
Genet, on the contrary, is wholly indifferent as to which side of history he’ll land on. Spawned from the mud like Adam, he feels more at ease in the gutter than in the garden. While his homosexuality was, again, far more scandalous among his contemporaries than it is today, his graphic descriptions of sex acts were never really the true source of his texts’ grittiness. Rather, Genet’s power comes from his stylistic chaos and exuberance, his meticulous construction of sites of transgression, and the baroque carnival of heroic figures who track dirt across his pages: the child delinquent, the prostitute, the pedophile, the homeless man, the blind elderly Arab hurling obscenities and pretending to masturbate. These characters from the fringe live at the center of Genet’s universe. His friend Giacometti tells him of a tryst: “Giacometti had told me of his amorous adventures with an old homeless woman, charming and in rags, probably dirty, and when she was entertaining him, he could see growths studding her almost bald skull.” How does Genet reply? “You should’ve married her, and presented her as Mrs. Giacometti.” One wonders, with regards to the old adage that dirt is just matter displaced, whether dirt that’s found its place is still dirt.
This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín.
Correction: January 8, 2021
An earlier version of this article omitted from the text the names of the translators for the two books under discussion.